Waiting for Gateau

When Robert Tournier opened his first Le Central in Santa Monica in 1978, the likes of Jane Fonda were beating down the doors to get at his affordable provincial French food. The place was so successful, Tournier says, that he envisioned popping into each major city in the country to open a Le Central, sell it and then move on to the next city. Toward that end, he sold the Santa Monica location and moved to Denver in 1981 during the boom to establish Le Central number two. "I said, 'I'll be here for three years, and then I'll move on,'" Tournier says.

Fifteen years later, he's still here.
Credit his family, his love for Colorado and the fact that this Le Central is doing so well with making Tournier stick around. "You reach a point where you realize you can't just keep packing up and moving around, especially when you have a family," he says. "When I was younger, I could get away with that." And he certainly did.

Tournier grew up in the Mediterranean seaport of Toulon. In 1968, at the age of seventeen, he left France for Washington, D.C., where he immediately started working in kitchens. "At that time, when you were French, that's what everyone said you should do," he recalls. "I worked my way up through the ranks in several restaurants there." A chance visit to California in 1976 left him amazed at the prices restaurants there were charging for French food, so he decided to provide an alternative. "I said, 'My God, maybe I should do something here, and that's when the idea of Le Central came about," Tournier says. "I knew I couldn't do fancy, but I can do a good coq au vin, and I can do it for a reasonable price."

And the natives ate it up. "I look back at that restaurant in Saint Monique, and I hit myself on the head and ask, 'What were you thinking, leaving?'" he says. "I was ahead of my time with that place, and it was a wonderful setup. I'd probably be making a killing now."

Not that he's doing too badly with his current situation. Le Central is packed at weekday lunches and weekend dinners, not to mention during its well-regarded (especially by me) Sunday brunch, and it even comes close to filling during weeknight dinners. But as often happens when a restaurant is constantly humming, production is starting to suffer.

That's a problem of which Tournier is well aware. "I'm not making excuses," he says, "but we have experienced a recent surge in business that has put quite a strain on the kitchen. I thought we were at least doing okay, but then I have gotten a few calls like yours that indicate we have some problems." He maintains that many of the complications are caused by the daily menu changes--Le Central offers a small, unchanging roster of signature dishes, a host of regular lunch specials and a "cafe" dinner menu du jour written on blackboards--and because he gives the people he has cooking for him "too many freedoms." That translates into overly ambitious dishes and a lack of attention to detail, he says. "If I were by myself, we wouldn't have food going out not perfect. But then, if I were by myself, people would be waiting a week to get their food."

The wait these days is considerably less than a week, but sometimes it feels like it comes close. A recent dinner there that should have lasted an hour and a half took more than two--there was way too much time between courses. Tournier says he wants to be known for "casual" service, but there's casual and then there's somnambulant. Water glasses were never refilled, empty plates outstayed their welcome, and when we had questions, it took several tries before a busboy secured our answers.

But for every hindrance to our meal, there was an impressive dish to balance things out. For example, a lengthy wait for appetizers was rewarded by a trio of excellent country-style pates ($5.95) served with toast points, cornichons and a tart mustard that complemented the coarsely textured, mildly flavored meats. And I'd stick around for any amount of time to get at the rich feuillete d'escargots ($5.95), six snails wrapped in a puff pastry shaped like a calzone; when our forks pierced the dough, a luscious mixture of Brie and bleu cheeses oozed out. Those sauces were augmented by three more that striped the plate beneath the pastry--a marinara, a red-pepper coulis and a sharp, creamy peppercorn. The aubergine ($4.95) starter was also worth waiting for. Soft eggplant slices had been wrapped around seasoned cream cheese and smothered in the aromatic marinara--a combination so good that we almost overlooked the blackened bottom layer.

In general, overcooking seems to be Le Central's main production problem. Someone had failed to notice that the lobster bisque that came with the eatery's ongoing lobster deal had reduced itself to glue in the stockpot; since I'd tried it before, I knew it wasn't supposed to be a brownish color, and one taste confirmed that the bottom had burned and sent acrid flavors throughout the rest of the soup. The waitress never returned to check on the soup course, so we flagged a busboy and sent it back. Meanwhile, we concentrated on the exemplary soupe a l'oignon, which Tournier makes using a white stock of veal bones that haven't been browned in the oven. The resulting broth had a cleaner taste and a slight gelatinous quality that made this version of French onion soup more authentic than most in town. A slice of Le Central's fresh, made-on-the-premises French bread served as a barrier between the liquid and the melted Swiss cheese, an unerring combination.

While we slurped that up, the busboy came and went by our table several times without stopping to give us the scoop on the other soup. When our waitress arrived ten minutes later, I asked her about the bisque. "Oh, yeah, I was going to tell you," she replied. "The chef thinks the soup got too hot, and he's making some more. Can I bring you a cup of our other soup?" A little late for that, we said, and she grudgingly apologized.

The rest of the lobster deal involved a properly cooked half of a crustacean done a la meuniere (sauteed with butter and lemon juice) ($12.50) served with a mound of Tournier's risotto--which diners can have replenished on an all-you-can-eat basis--from a recipe his grandmother made in Toulon. I have a feeling someone isn't following her rules, though, because while the flavors, heavy on cheese and onion, were harmonious, the rice was chewy and dry. Sadly, we weren't interested in getting more.

But I would have taken seconds and thirds of the chunky-smooth, creamy mashed potatoes that came with both the entrecote au poivre ($12.50) and the gigot d'agneau ($10.50). The former was a tender piece of beef from "between the ribs" (entrecote's translation) that had been coated in the same peppercorn cream sauce that came with the escargots, and the latter was a hunk of lamb from the leg that had been roasted into a juicy mess and served with more juice sparked by mint. Both meats had been cooked to set off their natural attributes. The kitchen made another misstep, though, with the fruits de mer ($10.50). Everything in it but the mussels--clams, shrimp, catfish and salmon--had been sucked dry of all juices through overheating, and the underlying pesto cream sauce was basil-flavored milky water.

When we visited for lunch, the clams were treated no better in the coquillages au basilic ($6.95), one of several choices of clams or mussels served with French fries. Tournier has been offering this popular bargain for years, but I still don't understand the special appeal of eating fries with mollusks. Part of my perplexity this time stemmed from the clams' texture, which was like chewing on really old rubber erasers. There was no help to be had from the scant amount of broth at the bottom of the bowl, either--not only was there very little of the liquid, but the awkward depth of the bowl meant we had to take all of the clams out to get at it. And then there was the smattering of raw, diced tomatoes on top that would have been much better if they'd been cooked, as well as the two shreds of basil that weren't exactly what we expected for a dish described as being "with basil." Adding to the dryness of the meal were the fries, which were big, fat and, well, dry.

Stinginess, not cooking flaws, did in two other lunch dishes. For instance, the artichaut a la Corse ($6.50) promised artichoke bottoms, but this spinach salad featured just one bottom filled with a spicy cream-cheese concoction. (Tournier says the menu had a typo.) And while the description of pissaladiere ($5.95) also mentioned artichoke bottoms, what we got on the individual-sized pizza was one small, split artichoke heart along with two slim mushroom slices.

This time, however, the lobster bisque with the lobster deal (grille au pastis, $12.50) was spectacular--but the anise-flavored lobster was dried out, and so was the risotto. And while service was more efficient than it had been at dinner, it bordered on maniacal, so frenzied and overworked did our waiter appear.

"When we get a boom in business, it's easy to get sloppy," says Tournier. And he should know, because he opened a second Denver restaurant, Transalpin, in 1984, then saw it suffer through the bust and finally sold it in 1992. "When I got another restaurant," he explains, "my head was too big. I said, 'Hey, I can do anything.' I learned. Now I need to do what it takes to make this work." For starters, Tournier says he hired two more cooks this past week.

I'm glad to hear it. Affordable French food paired with excellent wine values has made Le Central a Denver favorite, but its customers shouldn't have to pay the price of success.


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